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Article No.: 09-5

Article Title: Wellness in the Workplace: Avoiding 5 Figure Mistakes

Author: Heather Rahn, MA, LPCA, Founder and CEO of be! a spa for the mind

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Think back to the last time you had a really bad cold or flu bug.  How productive or efficient were you?

Have you ever gone through a bad relationship break up?  How productive or focused were you?

Start multiplying these situations times 10% of your workforce in an organization at any given time.  The 5 figure mistake is when companies do not take measures to address the needs of their employees in ensuring that they are physically and emotionally fit and tens of thousands of dollars seep through the cracks.   It is estimated that the average divorce costs a company $8000 per employee over the course of a year in lost productivity, absence, and health care costs (Turvey & Olson, 2006).   The best companies have a culture of wellness illustrated by their commitment to their employees on and off the job.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word wellness?  Treadmills, barbells and apples often come to mind because people naturally assume wellness is about the physical side of health.  Unless you are the headless horseman, the mind and body are connected.
Mental fitness brings about the chicken or the egg question in determining the cause of physical ailments.  It is often easier to treat the symptoms than address the underlining causes.  Yet people still feel gypped when they leave their physician’s office without a prescription.  The instant gratification need takes priority of the long term goals.   But wellness goes beyond the physical.  It includes emotional, spiritual, and dreams of the individual.  Wellness in the context of the workplace is about being focused, effective, and engaged in the responsibilities of the job.

Stress is estimated to cost business $300 billion a year (Valasquez-Manoff, 2005).  Stress is a symptom of elements in an individual’s life.  It can also be a factor in heart disease, weight gain, and lack of sleep.  Stress can cause tense or short communication, a lack of empathy for others, and emotional instability which can significantly impact relationships at home and at work.  Stress is the nose-dive start of the downward spiral.  Therefore, stress needs to be addressed in a corporate wellness program.

To stay labeled as a wellness focused company, most companies have an employee assistance program.  The EAPs were created in response to the drug free workplace initiatives.  For the last few decades, they have been a reactionary program to use when you need it for crisis interventions or return to work assessments.   It is a forgotten resource until the drama dial turns to high in the workplace.

Most people understand the power of preventative health care on the physical side.  Insurance companies encourage preventative care with annual check-ups and education on fitness and nutrition for a healthy lifestyle.  They have even orchestrated health fairs to encourage Health Risk Assessment testing to identify high risk individuals that may be impacting the company’s insurance premium.  Human Resource departments are also trying to address the cost of health insurance by offering programs and incentives to help those high risk folks change their behavior.

As an employee, it is not too fun to be singled out as “high risk” with a smoking habit or poor eating habits.  Another 5 figure mistake happens when companies focus solely on those that are physically high risk and not addressing the 80% in an office who may become high risk or a spouse/child that was not invited to participate in the wellness program.
It is like going on a treasure hunt for the money hemorrhage when companies dig into their insurance premiums, health care claims, and prescription usage.   Here are several suggestions for highly effective wellness programs:

  • Include all those that are covered under the insurance plan in a wellness program.
  • Promote before, during, and at the end of the program.  It keeps the troops motivated.
  • Offer contests and on-going shorter term incentives for teams.  This ensures accountability partners, fuels competitive spirit, and offers more chances to win (so if you have an off quarter, you do not simply give up). 
  • Get upper management support as the leaders of the organization, they set the tone for the success of a wellness program.  Encourage employee participation and ownership of the program with shared stories of participation, successes, and suggestions for program improvement.  The story of an employee participating in a cancer awareness walk in honor of a parent with cancer brings a personal touch to the program and can inspire others to get involved.
  • Encourage a culture of preventative physical and as well as emotional health check-ups by removing the stigma of mental fitness.    Think of an EAP as proactive and not punitive.  Educate management to promote these resources as a benefit and perk of employment.
  • If the issue is retention or absenteeism in the workplace, bring in fresh perspectives with team coaching, education, and counseling for individuals.  HR can get to the bottom of the core issues causing the symptoms of absenteeism and presenteeism through third party resources like EAPs and coaching services.
  • Track the program for ROI.

The most important 5 figure mistake is companies who do invest in corporate wellness programs, employee assistance programs, and wellness fairs but forget to track the return on investment.  The Wellness Council of America recommends $100-$300 per employee for a complete wellness program.  With such an investment, you need to track and measure the program performance.  A baseline needs to be captured so you can see progress and change in biometrics, insurance claims, and prescription use.  People only measure what is important.  Therefore, you have to know what is important when you begin the wellness program to ensure that you are tracking the right elements.
On average, companies can expect a $3-6 return on investment for every $1 spent on a corporate wellness program (American Journal of Preventative Medicine, December, 2005).  That overwhelmingly beats the stock market.   Imagine your company investing in a new product that brings in such an ROI.  The company that invests in their employees as valuable asset instead of a disposable liability will reap significant rewards in productivity, lower health care costs, and an attractive working environment for recruiting top talent.

In a tough economy, companies need to justify and watch every penny.  Budgets are being slashed in marketing, overhead, and head count but these short term solutions may impede long-term growth.   Wellness programs are a low cost, high value proposition if executed properly.  They can build a strong, positive corporate culture and ensure effectiveness of each employee.  Keeping the best and most productive employees is essential to the growth of an organization. 
Turvey, M., & Olson, D. (2006). “Marriage & Family Wellness:  Corporate America’s Business?”  Life Innovations, Inc., Minneapolis, MN.
Velasquez-Manoff, M. (April 19, 2005).  “Workplace stress: A $300 billion problem for American business.” Columbia News Service, Columbia University, New York.

For questions or comments on this article, contact Heather Rahn at rahn@besimplybe.com

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